The black teenager who was murdered because of the colour of his skin became the focus of in-depth inquiries into the workings of the Metropolitan Police that reverberate throughout police forces even to this day.

Stephen, 18, spent the evening of Thursday, April 22nd, 1993, with a friend. About 10.30 p.m. he crossed Well Hall Road in Eltham, south-east London, to catch a bus. According to Stephen’s friend, five white youths came quickly up to Stephen and “literally engulfed him.”

Stephen was stabbed to a depth of five inches on both sides of his chest. He broke free and ran over 100 yards before collapsing. His friend ran to call an ambulance but Stephen was already dead when he arrived at the hospital.

The murder was characterised by a catalogue of investigative errors. The first two duty police officers on the scene noted that Stephen was still alive but did not ascertain his injuries. The first inspector to arrive “simply took it for granted that someone junior was appropriately in charge of Stephen.” No log or record was made of what happened. Officers did not make house-to-house searches in the area where the youths ran off – they thought it was too late to wake people up.

Tip-offs over the next two days constantly named five youths said to be part of a local gang that carried knives. They could have been arrested at once and put into identity parades while memories were still fresh. They were not arrested in fact until a fortnight later. Officers were then advised to look for knives under the floorboards in the houses, but they didn’t do so.

Eventually all charges against the five suspects were dropped because of insufficient evidence.

Stephen’s parents complained that the police did not seem willing to admit that the attack had occurred simply because of Stephen’s race, so they brought a private prosecution against the five suspects. But Stephen’s friend, the most important witness, appeared to be muddled in his evidence, and the judge ruled that he was an unreliable witness. The five suspects were acquitted.

The Daily Mail then shook the legal world by naming the five under the banner headline “MURDERERS.” Because acquitted defendants cannot be charged again with the same crime, a public inquiry was then instigated under Sir William Macpherson. The inquiry could not find any new evidence against the suspects but blamed the police for spoiling the investigation “by a combination of professional incompetence, institutionalised racism, and a failure of leadership by senior officers.”

The inquiry concluded that the murder was “simply, solely and unequivocally motivated by racism” and that it was “an affront to society.”